Marine Band veteran nears his last inauguration
By Michael E. Ruane,
Master Gunnery Sgt. D. Michael Ressler opens the big fireproof safe, bends his tall frame and slides out the Marine Band leader’s logbook for 1937. He turns to Wednesday, Jan. 20. “Inauguration Day,” the entry begins.
“Uniform blue and overcoats. Fierce downfall of rain near freezing during entire ceremony . . . a day long to be remembered . . . band marched and played pretty much continuous . . . good to keep the blood circulating.”
It was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s second inauguration, says Ressler, 60. Roosevelt spoke, and the band played, before an ocean of umbrellas. This was before Ressler’s day. But in a way, it was his time.
Ressler is the longest-serving current member of the legendary band, called “The President’s Own.” He has participated in nine inaugurations over 35 years — Monday likely will be his last — and as the band’s historian, he has custody of its archives, library and lore.
Original manuscripts in the hand of John Philip Sousa are at his fingertips.
So is the band’s list of tunes from the 1937 ceremony, which included “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
And so are old news accounts, plus a photo, of the band at Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration. You need a magnifying glass to pick the members out.
Ressler can tell the stories, heard from old-timers, of the galoshes that marchers left along the wintry parade route during John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961 and how it was so windy that extra chin straps were needed to keep their hats on.
He remembers the frigid rain and mist at George W. Bush’s first inauguration in 2001:
“The temperatures hovered right above freezing. . . . You’re surrounded by bright lights, and it looked like a night sky beyond those lights. You could see the rain, the mist swirling.”
And he can relate how Sousa’s rousing Washington Post march — listed as a backup number for President Obama’s inauguration Monday — became a dance craze in the 1890s.
“This is my job, and I love it,” Ressler said last week at the band’s headquarters, at Seventh and K streets in Southeast Washington. The library, with more than 100,000 titles, and the archives are in the basement because of the sheer weight of the material.
Ressler first participated in an inauguration at Jimmy Carter’s in 1977, when he played the euphonium in the ceremony and the parade. He has been at every inauguration since — playing in six, present in an administrative capacity for the past two.
On Monday, he’ll be doing color commentary on the band for the Pentagon Channel, he said.
Ressler, at 6-foot-1, is ramrod straight in his khaki shirt and olive green trousers. He has thinning gray hair. His birthday is March 4 — which until 1933 was Inauguration Day, he noted.
A native of New Holland, Pa., Ressler got into band music in elementary school and high school. His father worked for a company that made farm machinery.
He said he and his friends would travel to nearby Philadelphia to hear concerts. But instead of attending rock shows, they would see the Philadelphia Orchestra at the venerable Academy of Music.
The first time he heard the Marine Band, he had been watching television coverage of Kennedy’s funeral in 1963. The band played the “Navy Hymn.” “I had never heard anything so beautiful in my life,” he said.
He joined the band in 1974.
The Marine Band made its White House debut in 1801, and a few months later, on March 4, played at Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration.
“We have been involved, we believe, in every inaugural in Washington since 1801,” Ressler said.
“This is the biggest day in a Marine Band member’s life,” he said. “It’s the longest day. It’s the hardest day. But it’s probably the greatest day. . . . We are in the spotlight. . . . We really get to show the nation and the world who we are and what we do.”
Started in 1798, the band will be 215 years old on July 11. The diminutive, bespectacled Sousa, who directed the band from 1880 to 1893, was a “master musician,” Ressler said, and its best known leader.
Sousa wrote the march because President Chester A. Arthur didn’t like “Hail to the Chief” and wanted something different. “Sousa felt that [“Semper Fidelis”] was . . . the best composition that he had ever written,” Ressler said.
On Monday, the band will play about 30 numbers during the inaugural ceremony, from 10 a.m. to almost 1 p.m., Ressler said. It will then march and play in the inaugural parade, and later perform at the Commander in Chief’s Ball.
Ressler said he plans to leave the band in August.
“I’m going to miss it terribly,” he said. “It’s been a part of my life really since ninth grade, when I decided this is where I wanted to be.
“To not be a part of this job anymore will be a huge challenge,” he added. “For most of my adult life . . . it’s been the primary focus of what I’m trying to do. So, I’m going to miss it.”